action

Nioh Review — Somewhat Soulful Action

by Jed Pressgrove

The word out there is true: Nioh swipes a lot from Dark Souls. Enemies resurrect when you heal at a shrine (a parallel to the bonfire in Souls); you lose experience points (known as Amrita in Nioh) when you die but can regain them if you make it back to your point of failure without perishing; shiny objects on dead warriors attract your eye; and so on. But developer Team Ninja shifts the focus from deliberate horror to whip-smart action, similar to how Hideo Yoshizawa’s Ninja Gaiden (1988) revised Castlevania (1986), and avoids Hidetaka Miyazaki’s pseudo-existential, juvenile gibberish that made the latest Souls games (Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) case studies in pretentious pop gaming. The only catch is that, unlike Ninja Gaiden and its cutscenes, Nioh doesn’t understand how brief storytelling can supercharge spectacular martial arts.

When it comes to the spectacle and intricacies of fighting, Nioh is what Bloodborne should have been all along. Whereas Bloodborne neutralized its speed, its kinetic potential, with awkward risk-reward concepts (such as regaining health by immediately attacking enemies after taking damage), Nioh adds fresh nuance to the 3-D beat ’em up with the “Ki Pulse” move, which rebuilds your stamina more quickly when you tap the right shoulder button just as balls of light touch your character after you perform an attack. “Ki Pulse” is a rhythm game within the action that, when mastered, creates an unprecedented sense of stabilization and can work as a way to recover from combos, set up jabbing strikes, neutralize stamina-draining fields, or avoid a counterattack. (The flexibility of this system surpasses the color-coded defensive cues in the tragically underrated Golden Axe: Beast Rider.)

Nioh’s triumph over its obvious predecessors doesn’t stop there. You can take one of three stances (low, mid, or high) to improve evasion, counterattacking, or power. These stances also alter the normal and strong attacks of any weapon, granting the player artistic and technical license that make the stylistic flourishes in Devil May Cry, 3-D Ninja Gaiden (2004), or Bayonetta seem amateurish in comparison. As you go from boss fight to boss fight, Nioh forces you to grasp new layers of its complex combat. This approach is a far cry from the grinding that players often experience in Dark Souls, where luck can play as much of a role as skill. You are far less likely to be fortunate in Nioh; continued victory demands an articulate understanding of the game’s martial theories and practices, which emphasize the satisfaction, rather than the relief, of winning.

It’s a shame, then, that Nioh is a rambling mess otherwise. As if samurai protagonist William looking almost exactly like Geralt from The Witcher isn’t embarrassing enough, the narration in Nioh’s intro sounds like someone doing an exaggeration of William Shatner’s choppy delivery. And the cutscenes do not get more lively, outside of when bizarre animal spirits show up. Ironically, the most powerful text in Nioh is its message to you when you die (“Freed from this mortal coil”), which kicks off initially sorrowful music that morphs into something peaceful and content (a breath of fresh air after the dread of the Souls series).

In contrast to Nioh’s one-dimensional superiority over its influences, Ninja Gaiden wasn’t merely a better action title than Castlevania. It revolutionized storytelling in video games, allowing a concise narrative to bring a distinct emotional urgency that played off the speed of the hero. Thanks to protagonist Ryu Hayabusa’s pregame outburst about the death of his father, a fatal duel in an introductory cutscene drives every bit of the nonstop action in Ninja Gaiden. In Nioh’s first map screen, a duel is talked about casually, objectively. Yes, this duel involves only a sub-mission, but it’s a wasted opportunity to inject the human condition into the fighting, a missed chance to further enhance an already exciting kind of action, where rhythmic conservation reveals a blistering array of aesthetically sophisticated violence. Let raw emotion run through the entire affair — that’s what Ninja Gaiden on the NES tried to teach the pop video game world, and Nioh is yet another entry that doesn’t get it.

Betraying First-Person Action Norms

by Paul Schumann

A respect for history, faith, and humanity separates Betrayer from many of its peers. Like other first-person action games, Betrayer features a variety of ranged weapons — bows, flintlocks, and tomahawks — but the most important gameplay function doesn’t involve violence: a listening mechanic allows the player to seek out key sections of the map for audio clues. This mechanic makes Betrayer more aesthetically pleasing, as there is no minimap or obnoxious arrows leading from one objective to the next. Listening also adds to the atmosphere as cursed totems beckon the player in for a trap and lost souls weep into the ether. This design fulfills the purpose of Betrayer’s storytelling.

In the 17th century New World, you play as an anonymous settler/adventurer washed up on the shores of Virginia, the sole survivor of your vessel. You discover you are not alone: a mysterious girl stalks the woods warning you to avoid these lands, a shadow world of ghosts, demons, and skellingtons. You gradually discover how the lives of the former colonists demonstrate the foibles, passions, and potential for brutality of human nature.

From time immemorial, going back to the Garden of Eden, human beings have had the potential to do good or evil. To Betrayer’s credit, the lost souls aren’t presented as backward sods just because they lived centuries before us. They all have their own motivations, whether based in pride, lust, anger, fear, greed, patriotism, faith, or despair. There’s the Catholic who came to the New World for a new start away from the religious persecutions of England, yet he comes to find religious conflict inescapable. There’s the mother who is driven to despair after her son accidentally dies by his own hand. There’s interracial liaisons between settlers and natives. There’s the threat of conflict between marauding Spaniards, hostile natives, and English settlers. Very real human tragedies all.

The manner in which the stories are told further develops Betrayer’s approach to fallen human nature. The truth is only gradually revealed. The first wraiths you encounter can hardly remember more than their names. The ghosts tend to recall only the best parts of the people they were, but pieces of their lives return as you find clues.  One ghost insists his friend died by accident until you reveal evidence showing foul play. Another ghost reminisces about warning his son not to play with a firearm and his sickly wife going for a walk. Finding the graves of his wife and son leads the man to remember that his son had shot himself and that his wife committed suicide in her grief.

The poor souls in Betrayer are cursed to walk the earth until they’ve come to terms with their guilt. The theology is a bit iffy, sounding more like the legend of the Jack O’ Lantern — a soul stuck between heaven and hell — than traditional Catholic eschatology. In that sense, it’s almost fitting that the non-denominational Protestant colonists are cursed to such an obscure fate. The story also explores apparent demonic activity and the supposed presence of witchcraft. The natives regard the deep woods as a dangerous place, not merely for hostile tribes but for evil spirits. Moreover, an accused witch is executed by burning, but the game reveals that nothing supernatural is at play, just mere skulduggery. Betrayer’s handling of witch hunting has historical merit: most instances of witch burning took place under Protestant authority, in contrast to the various Catholic Inquisitions that took a more measured and lenient response to such accusations (see work by sociologist Rodney Stark).

Betrayer’s ideas about treatment of the dead can be traced back to ancient Greece. Daniel Mendelsohn writes in the New Yorker: “The souls of the dead were thought to be stranded, unable to reach the underworld without a proper burial.” From The Iliad and The Odyssey to Sophocles’ Antigone, the necessity of burial as a sacred rite is clear (the protagonist of Antigone states “Hades requires these rights.”). In Betrayer, some ghosts cannot rest because evil spirits have stolen their skulls from their graves.  The endgame of Betrayer begins when you discover the source of the darkness — the brutal double murder of a young woman and her unborn child. The woman’s sister Allison (the sole survivor of the settlement) informs the player that she had attempted to burn the corpse to set her sister’s soul at peace. Yet this was not enough. The sister’s spirit wandered the woods near the scene of her death exacting vengeance on the flora, fauna, and natives.

To resolve this predicament, the player is advised to set the souls of the other settlers at rest before dealing with the sister. What follows is not theologically orthodox but makes for a thought-provoking conclusion. You return to old sections of the map to conclude their stories once and for all. You give the spectres an ultimatum to realize what’s done is done, to leave their haunting grounds, and to face their judgment: “You cannot undo what was done. You must surrender your regrets and be at peace.” The protagonist may sound forgiving or pitiless but is clearly not deciding their fates. At the same time, Betrayer doesn’t show what happens to the souls condemned to torment (as opposed to the souls you release). Likewise, your fate is never revealed. Allison, however, finally buries her sister and releases her to meet her maker. In some respects, Allison resembles Antigone, who uttered these words in Sophocles’ play: “I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living, for in that world I shall abide forever.” Allison will also remain among the dead in the woods, though she still walks in the land of the living.

Wrong-headed and clumsy use of religion in games is usually a point of annoyance for me, but faith and the supernatural in Betrayer are treated without undue scorn and with just enough accuracy to blend into a believable historical backdrop. The game succeeds not with its attempts at theology but in its humanistic insights to the passions driving our choices. Betrayer shows that the fantastical fails without human experience.